Posted on Tuesday 18 February 2014 by Ulster Business


The parent company of British Airways could start operating flights to Europe from George Best Belfast City Airport with one of its other airlines, according to Chief Executive Willie Walsh.

The boss of International Airlines Group said that while no plans were imminent to fly from the City Airport to European destinations, he would not rule it out in the next few years.

But Mr Walsh, who was in Belfast to open British Airways' new business lounge, said any such flights would likely be operated by IAG's Barcelona-based low cost carrier Vueling, which already operates services across Europe.

"It is not necessarily on our radar with BA. (But) we see Belfast could be an opportunity for Vueling," he told Ulster Business.

"They are a rapidly expanding airline and they are always looking for new markets to serve, so it could well be an opportunity for us in the future. It won't be this year but they are looking for opportunities for markets next year and so I wouldn't rule it out."

The length of Belfast City Airport's runway means it cannot accommodate long-haul flights but aircraft can range into Europe and the airport management are keen to attract new routes.

Vueling started operations in 2004 and is now the leading company at Barcelona-El Prat Airport, operating 208 routes to more than 105 cities in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Mr Walsh added: "Being part of the IAG network gives us the opportunity to say, have you looked at Belfast? They wouldn't have looked at Belfast previously but we're able to share with them our knowledge of the market and what we think would be possible for them."

British Airways returned to the Northern Ireland market in 2012 after acquiring loss-making rival bmi. It currently operates up to six flights a day from Belfast City to London Heathrow.

Mr Walsh said the route was "performing well" but also stressed that air passenger duty continued to be a "major issue" for airlines serving Belfast and the wider Northern Ireland economy. The Republic of Ireland is scrapping air passenger duty on all flights from April and while the tax has been abolished on long-haul routes from Northern Ireland, it remains at £13 per passenger on flights to short-haul destinations.

"I think it is definitely a drag on the economy here in Northern Ireland. I don't think the British government fully appreciates how distorted it is when you've got the opportunity to drive a little over an hour south of the border to fly from Dublin and avoid Air Passenger Duty," he said.

"It is without doubt having an impact and you can see that with the increase in services that Emirates and Etihad and others are putting on from Dublin... I think the British government needs to understand just how negative a factor it is for the economy."

Opening the refurbished airline lounge at George Best Belfast City Airport, Mr Walsh said the £300,000 investment reiterated the airline's commitment to Northern Ireland.

"British Airways' new lounge represents a significant investment and shows the importance of the Belfast operation within our global network," he said.

"The Belfast City to London Heathrow route remains a vital artery for the flow of business and commerce and is essential to sustain and grow the local economy."


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